Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Comfort eating, vegan style

Our house is right by the sea. There's just one small green field between it and the Atlantic Ocean. It might sound idyllic and sometimes it is. But other times, it can be ferocious.

Here's what it has looked like from my office window a lot lately. 

That's rain lashing at the window. Those are the white crests of waves pummelling the shoreline all along the bay. And that reflected light on the right side of the photo is a lamp on my desk, the illumination from which was badly needed as the sky was dark and heavy with clouds outside. (To shatter your idea of the idyll of living on the coast even further: this photo was taken at 12 noon!)

On days like this, a body calls out for comfort food. But when you're following what amounts to a vegan diet that includes fish, comfort food can be hard to find. (Think about it: don't most of our most comforting dishes include dairy? Mac and cheese, fish pie with creamy mash, apple crumble, chocolate cake - now I'm just torturing myself!)

Thankfully, my experiments in the kitchen have turned up some alternatives that are just as comforting and yet follow the principles of the OMS diet. This vegan cottage pie with North African spicing is one of them. It doesn't try to be a substitute for a classic, it just feels like a whole new dish to enjoy in the dark days of winter.

Vegan cottage pie with Moroccan spicing - serves 4

200g dried green speckled lentils*
500g sweet potato, peeled and chopped into 3 to 4cm cubes
1 red onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 sticks of celery, finely chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and finely chopped 
2 garlic cloves, chopped finely (I used smoked garlic but regular garlic is fine)
1 red chilli, finely chopped
1 large red pepper, cut into 1cm chunks
1 leek, peeled of its outer layers, halved lengthwise and chopped into 0.5cm slices
2 tablespoons rapeseed oil
2 teaspoons ras al hanout*
1 teaspoon cumin
1 400g can of chopped or peeled tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Start by preparing the vegetables (sweet potatoes, red onion, celery, garlic, chilli, red pepper and leek).
  • Pre-heat your oven to 200 Celsius/400 F/Gas Mark 6.
  • Cover the lentils in cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer for ten minutes. Reduce the heat. Cover the pot and simmer for a further 15 to 20 minutes, until the lentils have softened.
  • Meanwhile cook the sweet potatoes. Cover with lightly salted cold water. Bring to the boil and cook for 15 minutes or until soft.
  • Place a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add the rapeseed oil, chopped onion, carrot and celery. Cook for three minutes.
  • Add the garlic and chill and cook for a further two minutes.
  • Add the red pepper, leeks, cooked lentils and spices and cook for another three to four minutes. (If you're using canned lentils, they get added at this point too.)
  • Now add the can of tomatoes and the salt and cook for a further ten minutes. (If you're using whole tomatoes, you'll have to make sure you break those down using your wooden spoon.)
  • Get to work on your sweet potatoes while your lentil mix is bubbling away. Mash them with a 1/2 teaspoon of salt.
  • Taste both the lentil mix and the sweet potatoes to make sure you're happy with the seasoning and then pour the lentils into an oven-proof dish. Top with the sweet potato, spreading it out evenly with a fork.
  • Place in the oven and cook for 20 minutes.

* Tinned lentils work in this recipe too.

* Ras al hanout is a Moroccan spice blend that you'll find for sale in the spice section of most large supermarkets.

PS: Just in case you think living along the Irish Atlantic coast is all about darkness and harsh weather, we get days like this too.

Those days demand a different dinner!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

An immodestly good cake

I was always good at school and did well in exams. Growing up in the 1980s, the Dingle Peninsula was a much more tightly-knit place than it is today. So tightly-knit that a lot of people were curious as to how well I would do in my Leaving Certificate (the final exam we sit at secondary school and the one that determines our place at university here in Ireland).

I was delighted with my results when I received them. Years of hard work and study had paid off. Yet I was a little confused when various neighbours commiserated with me in the following days.

Where were the congratulations? Why did they think I needed consoling?

My mother was getting the same reaction and was confused too. However, she eventually figured out that it was all my father's fault...

My father is the most modest man I have ever met. Nothing in his being will ever allow him to boast about anything. When people asked him about my exam results, his response was to say that I had done 'alright'. Understandably, they interpreted this to mean that he (and therefore I) was disappointed. After all, proud parents shout about their children's achievements from all available rooftops, don't they? 
That's definitely not the case with my almost-pathologically modest father...

You're probably wondering what this has to do with cake. Well, I'm about to commit a cardinal sin in my dad's book by saying that this is one of the best cakes you'll ever make.

It's inspired by a trip I took to Brother Hubbard Café on Capel Street in Dublin at some stage last year (a café that is well worth checking out if you want lunch or a snack made from quality, Irish and seasonal ingredients the next time you're in town).
When I visited, I tried their almond and orange buns topped with dark chocolate. These burst with citrus flavour and the chocolate added a touch of luxury. They were moist and gluten free and I immediately set about making my own version as soon as I got home.

After some experimentation, I came up with a cake instead of buns and put it on the menu in my café. It was a hit with customers and (whisper it) I think it's just as good as the buns in Brother Hubbard's. (Sorry for the immodesty, Dad!)
Don't worry: there's a reason why it's only decorated on one side!
Here's what you need to make it:
2 oranges,
5 eggs,
300 grams caster sugar 
250 grams ground almonds 
1 teaspoon baking powder
  • Place the two oranges in a saucepan. Cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer for one hour.
  • Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius/350F/Gas mark 4.
  • Butter the base of a 26-cm round tin and line with parchment paper.
  • Chop your cooked oranges. I prefer to do this in the food processor but if you'd like chunkier pieces of orange in your cake, it's best to use a knife. Just be careful you don't lose too much of that precious juice!
  • Beat the eggs and the sugar for approximately two minutes, until well combined and frothy.
  • Add the chopped oranges and beat again.
  • Then add the ground almonds and baking powder and combine thoroughly.
  • Pour your mixture into your prepared tin and cook for 30 to 40 minutes. Check after 30 minutes as some ovens will bake this cake more quickly than others. The cake should be golden brown in colour and set in the middle. An inserted skewer should come out damp, not sticky.
  • Allow the cake to cool in its tin while you prepare the topping.
To decorate:
100 grams chocolate (I find 50 to 60% cocoa best )
60ml cream
Zest of half an orange
Flaked almonds
  • Break the chocolate into a heavy-bottomed saucepan and add the cream.
  • Place over a low heat and stir with a spatula. Don't be tempted to leave the stove while this is cooking. It could burn before you know it.
  • Once the chocolate has melted and combined with the cream into a glossy ganache, remove the cake from its tin and take off the parchment paper. Place on a cake plate and spread the ganache over the top. 
  • Sprinkle the flaked almonds and the orange zest over the ganache and leave to set before digging in.
Some people prefer this cake without any icing at all. They do so for several reasons. The absence of chocolate and cream makes it dairy free. And those who like pure clean flavours enjoy the strong orange taste without the distraction of chocolate.

Because I don't eat dairy and because I was bringing this cake to my sister's house where her daughter also avoids dairy, I only decorated one half of it.

A cake to suit all tastes
However, when we got there, my niece was much more interested in playing with our dog Jimmy than she was in eating cake.

Jimmy and Hannah: besties - at least some of the time!
Meanwhile, the adults got momentarily sidetracked by the prospect of meeting the newest addition to the family, my one-week-old nephew Conor.

Can you believe anyone's hand could be so small?
The lure of the cake did eventually drag us back though. It's that good! 
(Sorry, Dad!)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Bye bye Dingle Food Festival and the last days of summer. Hello winter and French onion soup.

Phew! The whirlwind that was the Dingle Food Festival is finally over and having baked hundreds (upon hundreds) of cupcakes, brownies and sweet treats and then manned my stall selling them over the course of three days, my tired body and frazzled mind have eventually recovered.

This year's food festival coincided with a definite change in the seasons. Before the festival, we were still wearing summer clothes and sandals but a storm hit on Sunday afternoon. The wind rose. The canopies covering our market stalls threatened to take off and had to be weighed down. Rain poured out of the skies. Thunder and lightening joined the fray. And since then, everyone has wrapped up in their winter woollies.

As the seasons change, so do our appetites. We yearn for foods that comfort, warm and nourish us through the cold days of winter. French onion soup is just such a food. I know there are lots of recipes for this soup out there but this one is suitable for my diet (and therefore for vegetarians and vegans too). It's not quite the same as the classic version that uses beef stock but rest assured that it's just as delicious!

This soup is traditionally served with melted cheese toasts but because I can no longer eat dairy, I find that anchovy toasts made an equally savoury accompaniment. The deep saltiness of the anchovy works really well against the sweetness of the onions.

French onion soup
6 large yellow onions, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons olive oil
¼ teaspoon of sugar
2 cloves garlic, minced
8 cups/2 litres of vegetable stock
½ cup/125ml of dry vermouth or dry white wine
1 bay leaf
¼ teaspoon of thyme
At least one teaspoon of salt and lashings of freshly-ground pepper

At least one slice of good bread and two anchovies per person
  • Place a heavy bottomed saucepan over a medium heat and add the olive oil. Add the olive oil and then the onions.
  • Sauté the onions for ten minutes.
  • Add the sugar to help with the caramelisation process.
  • Sauté for a further 30 to 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Essentially, what you want is for your onions to be browned, but not burned.
  • Add the minced garlic and sauté for one minute.
  • Add the stock, vermouth, bay leaf and thyme. Partially cover the saucepan and stir until the flavours are well developed, about 30 minutes.
  • Season with salt and pepper. You'll have to trust your judgment on this. Add the teaspoon of salt and several grindings of pepper; mix; then taste. Add more if you think it will benefit the soup. Remember that salt works by bringing out flavour so a little extra might be just the thing.
  • To make the toast, brush the slices of bread with a little olive oil and toast both sides under a hot grill. Lay the anchovies on top and cut into soldiers.
  • Enjoy

This makes more than two litres of soup but I've found that you can almost never make enough soup. Having a pot on the go means that you're sorted when it comes to quick weekday lunches and snacks and most soups - especially this one - benefit from sitting around for a day or two. The flavours get deeper and richer and better and better.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

I'm back! And so is the Dingle Food and Wine Festival!

Oops! It seems as though I unintentionally took a summer break from blogging! This makes it sound as though I spent the months of August and September lying on balmy beaches, sipping cool drinks and soaking up sunshine. If only it were so....

Nope. Instead, these past two months were two of the busiest of my year so far. August is always busy in Dingle, what with being the height of the summer season. Throw a family wedding into the mix and you've got the perfect recipe for a stressed-out and exhausted Sharon. I had so many things to do and places to be that there was never any time to be here.

But that's about to change. This weekend, Dingle celebrates its annual Food and Wine Festival, marking the end of the tourist season in the town. Everyone starts winding down once the festival is over. The farmers' market closes. The long evenings start to draw in. Some of the town's businesses close for winter. And instead of catering to tourists visiting Dingle, many of the town's residents head off on holidays of their own. 

Basically, everyone draws a breath after the frenetic pace of summer. That's what I will be doing too. I'll also take advantage of the quieter months to come to share some new recipes and thoughts with you here on a much more regular basis.

In the meantime, I'm preparing for the food festival. I'll have a stall at the farmers' market where I'll be selling... Sharon takes a deep breath before she recites what is a VERY long list... brownies, double chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies, Black Forest gateau cupcakes, lemon meringue cupcakes, ginger and lime cupcakes, banoffee cupcakes, Guinness cupcakes with Bailey's icing, carrot cupcakes with orange cream cheese icing, white chocolate and raspberry cupcakes, chocolate cupcakes with creamy peanut butter icing, chocolate cupcakes with chocolate ganache icing, cookies and cream cupcakes and mini mixed berry cheesecakes! 

Call to my stall to say hi if you're in town. And try a cupcake! 

Now, I'd best start baking.

To see what else is happening as part of the Dingle Food Festival, visit www.dinglefood.com 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Dillisk Food Project: a very special trip to Connemara

Why, hello there! It's been a while. 

I've been absent without leave these past few weeks but it wasn't because I forgot about you. As if that could ever happen! 
No, I often thought about how I was neglecting my poor food blog. It's just that I didn't know what I could do about it.

My problem was (as I take a sharp intake of breath), I had lost my enthusiasm for food. If you've been hanging around here for a while, you'll have gathered that I love food.  I love cooking it, eating eat and sharing it with friends and family. I've enjoyed sharing it with you here too.

But lately, I've fallen out of love and it was all because of my diet. We've had great weather here in Ireland this summer and I wanted ice cream but wasn't allowed to eat it. Everyone cooked barbeque dinners when the sun shone and I couldn't tuck into any of it. Suddenly, I became fixated on all that I could no longer eat and lost my enthusiasm for food.

But that was until I went to Connemara. Or to be more precise, until I visited this little boat shed in Connemara.

A very special food event called Dillisk is taking place in this shed every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night from now until early September. A team of chefs, cooks and people who are enthusiastic about food have created a kitchen and dining room in this abandoned shed and are using the food that is produced in the local area to put together very exciting menus. Think smoked seaweed broth and chocolate fudge made with sea salt harvested from the coastline outside the front door. This was just what I needed to reawaken my interest in food.

They had made the interior so pretty...

...and built a tandoor oven for cooking.

They even had their own resident dog

We were given gin and tonics with horseradish and lemon balm sherbet when we arrived.

And then most of us decided to go for a walk on the beach

We didn't want to miss any dinner so it wasn't long before we walked back.

And then the fun really began. 

We had some fabulous food. There were onion bajis with Toonsbridge mozzarella and pickled shitake mushrooms; a deep smoked dillisk broth brimful of garden greens served with perfectly cooked mussels; some char sui Connemara pork dumplings with kohlrabi and purple carrots; a dish of peas with herbs and fresh goats' curd; pollack cooked in that tandoor oven with barley and beets; poached rhubarb, fennel meringue, homemade clotted cream and spiced brown bread; Cloudpicker coffee and chocolate and Aughrasbeg sea salt fudge; and pickleback whiskeys to finish.

The conversations were just as good. My partner and I had travelled up from Dingle for the event and everyone else had come over from Dublin (some as couples, some with groups of friends). Everyone was interested in food and because we were all seated at a communal table, everyone chatted to everyone else. We exclaimed at what we were eating and discussed everything from the goings-on at the International Criminal Court in the Hague to birds of prey and everything in between. (I'm telling you: despite everyone apart from us being from Dublin, it was a very mixed crowd!)

So, I owe the wonderful team at Dillisk a huge thanks for helping me rediscover my enthusiasm for food and all of the pleasures that go with enjoying a good meal. 

If you happen to be anywhere near Connemara this summer, I would wholeheartedly recommend that you eat at this unique pop-up restaurant. I promise you'll have lots of fun. You may even end up juggling in the kitchen at the end of the evening!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

What Sharon did next

Closing the café left me with a huge hole in my life. I've filled that hole by spending more time with family and friends, focusing more on my journalistic writing (something has to pay the bills!), relaxing and thinking about where I want my life to take me in the future. 

It sounds crazy but I actually still have a lot of time left over after doing all of that, which goes to show that running a café is a whole lot more work than anyone realises. It may also sound crazy to anyone who knows how burned out I was when the café closed that I still yearn to work with food, not just writing about food, but actually producing food for people to eat. 

This is why I've returned to Dingle Farmers' Market where I have a weekly stall selling baked goods every Friday from 9 am until 2 pm. I've been back since the beginning of May and have been experimenting with different flavours and options to suit my customers' tastes ever since. 

I've brought back old favourites that people loved when I last had my stall there three years ago and I've started introducing some gluten-free, dairy-free and sugar-free treats to cater for the growing number of people who are careful about what they eat for health or philosophical reasons (a growing number of people that now includes me).
It's been great to be back. I've re-engaged with old customers, met new ones, enjoyed the banter with fellow stall holders and I'm really appreciating once again doing something with food.

Here are some pictures I've taken of my cakes and my stall in the past few weeks, just to give you an idea of what I've been doing:

Chocolate cupcakes with a creamy peanut butter icing - these contain butter, chocolate and cream (all things I shouldn't eat) and I seriously struggle not to scoff the lot!
The most adorable marzipan bees to go on top of my spiced honey cupcakes
Dan Lepard's chocolate custard muffins topped with chocolate ganache - chocolate on chocolate; it's a classic!
Zingy with lemon and always a winner
No flour, no dairy yet oh-so deliciously good
My white chocolate and raspberry cupcakes are on the left at the back and they have once again proved to be my bestsellers. The mini cheesecakes and banoffee cupcakes are pretty popular too!

I have some questions for you before I bid you farewell today:

1: Based on your own experience of cake eating, what flavours and combinations would you like to see for sale at farmers' markets? I'd be particularly interested in hearing about options that are gluten, dairy and sugar free.

2: I'm also thinking of signing up with EatWith and hosting supper club evenings in my home. Do you think people would be interested in this? Being at the market is not really enough to satisfy my cravings to feed people while enjoying their company and I think this new concept could be just the thing for me. Has anyone tried it out before? Or do you have any thoughts or suggestions?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A simple dish to make me better

I haven't been feeling all that strong lately. In fact, if I'm being truly honest, I've felt weak and unable to face the world and its challenges.
My health has been fine (thankfully) but I've taken a few emotional knocks and as a result, I've lost some of my zest for life. I've retreated into myself as I redefine who I am and what I want from what I know (deep down) is a wonderful world of opportunity all around me.

I turn to comfort food when I feel like this. Not comfort food as in chocolate; comfort food as in a bowl* of something nourishing that truly gives my body what it needs. Knowing that my physical body is being looked after allows me to divert my energies to improving my emotional and mental health.

This is food that makes me better.

Soba noodles with grilled salmon and spring onions in a ginger broth

Broth ingredients: (this will make much more than you need for one serving but lasts well for a few days in the fridge and freezes well too)

4 tablespoons freshly minced ginger
3 medium sized cloves of garlic, very finely chopped
2 litres of water or vegetable stock
3 to 4 tablespoons of soy sauce

Other ingredients:
150g fillet of salmon per person
3 spring onions
50g soba noodles per person 
1/4 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
  • Begin with the broth. Mince the ginger and chop the garlic and add to a heavy-bottomed saucepan over a medium heat. Add a tablespoon of water to the ginger and garlic and stir for three to five minutes or until the ginger and garlic have softened but haven't yet changed in colour. Add another tablespoon of water if needs be to prevent the mixture sticking to the bottom of the pan.
  • Add the water or vegetable stock if using and bring to the boil.
  • Simmer for five minutes and then add your soy sauce. Taste and add more soy if necessary.
  • Set aside
  • Heat your grill to medium. Season your salmon with salt and cook underneath the grill for six minutes on either side.
  • Boil some water and cook your noodles according to the instructions on the pack.
  • Peel the outer layer from the spring onions and cut into 4cm lengths. Then cut in four lengthwise.
  • Drain your noodles once cooked and coat in the sesame oil.
  • Place these at the bottom of the bowl. Place the salmon fillet on top. Pour over the ginger broth and garnish with spring onions. 
*In a complete aside: don't you agree that for food to be truly comforting, it should always be served in a bowl? Why is that, I wonder.  

Follow on Bloglovin